Game Off…Game On. A Commentary on Unsupervised Play Time in Central Park

September 15, 2012

News, No Laughing Matter

Lenore Skenazy is making headlines again (ABC news story summary is here.  Anderson Live interview is here).  Skenazye has launched an after school program where children ages 8-18 can be dropped off at Central Park to play with each other.  The caveat is that they are under no supervision from an adult.  Her premise seems to be that children need to engage in free play, playing outside and playing with other children.

While there has been a lot of outcry against the program, I am not against her premise; children playing outside with other kids their age is important.  However, I feel she has missed the mark dramatically with the concept that ‘free range’ means the children should be dropped off alone while she remains a phone call away at a close by coffee shop.

To provide context, I live in a cal-de-sac in Edmonton, Alberta.  Most of my neighbors have children in the new-born to elementary school age range.   On any given day, the neighborhood group of children ranging from ages 5-9 can be found riding their bikes, jumping on a trampoline, hosting a lemonade stand and generally playing up and down the street.  Are parents outside watching them? No. They are not being followed around by each perspective parent.  I would argue they are the very embodiment of free range play.  However, there are important differences which Skenazy’s play group is missing.

1) Proximity of Parents.
While parents are not riding their bikes up and down the street with their children, the kids remain on the street between the houses – meaning they are never more than a stone’s throw away from a parent if an emergency were to occur.  In addition, parents can glance out a window or walk to the bottom of their drive to periodically check in on the children, without interrupting their independent play.  A cry for help from any child would bring the closest parent running.  While Skenazy is a phone call away, she is assuming that a child who is responding to an emergency is capable of remembering the location of their cell phone and dialing her number (not to mention that there is a signal and enough battery).  There is also time factor involved where she needs to get the park if a child needs assistance.

2) The Children are Friends.
In my opinion, the most noticeable absence in Skenazy’s proposal is that random children are dropped off each week. Random children are meant to friend new children each week, or at the very least, take a few weeks to form a bond with one or more regular attending children. If a friendless child were to go missing (whether it be to wander off, get hurt, or be a victim of a crime), there is no social network looking out for them. In the case of my neighborhood group, they are all friends and as such have concern for each other, including their whereabouts. I believe it would be next to impossible for any one of them to be approached by a stranger – or to wander off – as the rest of the friendship groups is looking out for them. Ditto if one were to get hurt.  If your 8 year old is at Central Park, knows no one, and falls down breaking an arm, who is calling for help on their behalf? Other children are not committed to a relationship, nor would other 8 year olds have any concept that this child may need help over another one whose parents are close by.

3) Community at Large
Skenazy’s scenario is also missing out on the participation of the community at large.  While my children are too young to participate in the neighborhood play group, I know all of the children, as do my neighbors. Without intending to we are informally looking out for them.  As each of us go to and from our homes, we are invariable aware of the whereabouts of these children and if they need assistance.  We are also aware of the comings and goings in our neighborhood and therefore prevent the ‘stranger’ intrusion which is of the up most concern in the Central Park model.

It sounds like Skenazy wants to expose children to the childhood cries of “Game Off…Game On”.  (To help non-hockey parents: when children play hockey in the street, they cry “Game Off” whenever a car is coming – signalling that the children need to stop game play until the car passes. “Game On” signals the car has passed and play can continue.).  These cries are the core of free range play – children outside, playing together, without constant supervision, while looking out for each other.  I don’t live in New York but I suspect exposure to this sort of childhood play is a challenge.  An unsupervised play date in Central Park is not the answer.  Arrange a regualr playtime in an apartment courtyard, or a park close to a number of apartment buildings, or a school park.  Hosting a regualr playtime at a community location would help bring the afore mentioned qualities which facilitate free play, without the risks associated with a Central Park drop off model.

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One Comment on “Game Off…Game On. A Commentary on Unsupervised Play Time in Central Park”

  1. C.J. Says:

    You make a lot of very good points. My kids play outside unsupervised whenever they want. They are 7 and 10. They play with the neighbour kids or just with each other. We don’t have a park nearby but they walk to the park near my parents house sometimes. When they get bored or kids that are rowdy show up they just come back. Not a big deal. Sure people find it scary to let their kids go a bit most people I know eventually do. I just don’t see the “fear epidemic” being that big of a problem amoung parents, at least not where I live. I am also Canadian and live in Ontario. I found the $350 price tag a little off putting. Why would anyone pay money to have someone not supervise their kids. I can do that for free. I realize there were “scholorships for the taking” but putting that kind of price tag makes me think it was done just for publicity. Unfourtunately like most causes sometimes it gets taken overboard.

    Reply

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